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Book and Game Review List – 2021

READ STUFF!

One of my hobbies is reading and listening to audiobooks as well as playing the occasional game. To add some variety to the site I decided to start listing the books I read each year and provide mini reviews. This is mostly exercise to help me remember more of what I read, improve writing, and to spend a bit more time thinking critically about the media I consume. This year I’ll be including some of the games that I play as well since they can be as compelling a form of storytelling as any.

I’ll update this post throughout the year as I continue reading. I’d love to get some books recommended by anyone reading this or to discuss your thoughts on any of the books listed. So, please comment if you want! Here are links for past book posts; last year I managed 32, hoping for more this year!

New entries will show up after this line. The newest books will be on the top so if you have seen this article before, whatever is on top is most recent! SPOILERS OF ALL KINDS BELOW! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!



March

George Orwell Diaries
By George Orwell | Edited by Peter Davidson | Non-fiction / professional autobiographical | 2012

This was a new type of book for me. I’ve always liked the idea of keeping a journal or something like that to document major events or other things like that but have always felt a lack of coherent thoughts to put down in writing to actually do one. When I saw this listed online I decided to pick it up and see how his personal writings compared to his novels.

On the whole I enjoyed reading this. A large amount of it was domestic – about his garden & his interactions with neighbors and friends. There were also some significant sections early on as he traveled to visit lower-class workers which were good commentary on working conditions, there was also a good amount of material just prior to and during the first few years of WW2 which was also insightful.

There were two primary things which I took away from reading this. The first is the profound amount of observations Orwell made of the world around him. Almost every page contains some sort of observation – whether of a weird animal or comment on a news article – and I suspect his energies focused on observing the world helped shape his writing and his style quite dramatically. The second major take-away for me was how pedestrian much of the writings were. It wasn’t heady discourse on the state of things, recounting or documenting major events, or anything like that; it was noting how many eggs his chickens laid, to-do lists of things to do in the garden, moments of frustration with neighbors or the world. There were few entries which would lead you to think you were reading the words of a renowned thinker and writer.

I don’t think that is bad, I think it helps show that most of us have a largely shared common experience. It’s not that every word he wrote was to document the important, professionally relevant, or tied to some major political concerns; it’s more the opposite, he had concerns about finances, food, the necessities, and trying to live life.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
By Jung Chang| Non-fiction / Autobiography | 1991

This is a book recommended to me by my mom for a family book club and which I found to be exceptionally good. Wild Swans follows the life of 3 generations of women from a family in China from the early 1990s to the 80s. I knew a little about Mao, the Long March, the Cultural Revolution and related events from school but I had never before read a first-hand account. There were a number of scenes which, due to their first-person presentation I think, made them much more ‘potent’ than reading about in a history text. Some of these events – the process of feet binding, a son committing suicide in from of their father to protest a marriage, the expectation of loyalty to the Communist party, the violence against teachers by their students during the cultural revolution – are all the more potent for their individual accounts versus reading about them happening in aggregate or as a paragraph in some history.

One of the things which stuck out most to me in this book was the way in which China changes increasingly in to a world like that of Orwell’s 1984 and how there didn’t seem to be anything an individual could do to stop it. Jung Chang’s book was fantastic and I whole-heatedly recommend this to anyone with interests in China over the past century and how some of those events played out in their citizens lives.

February

Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome
By Venki Ramakrishnan | Non-fiction / professional autobiography | 2018

I know very little about biology. I’m not sure how this book even ended up in my audible account – presumably part of a two-for-one deal or something like that. Despite my ignorance on the topic Venki (a Nobel prize winner) was able to take me through the journey of his start in the sciences in the United States all the way through his life post-prize. He articulates the problems faced throughout his career of trying to understand the structure – initially of just parts of the ribosome – all the way through the understanding of the more complete picture of the ribosome.

The multi-decade endeavor highlighted the various challenges both technically and politically in science. From being pushed behind because you can’t get access to some limited equipment your competitors may have access to, the messy business of competing with peers to reach some goal as well as walking the fine line of the “ideal” that science is open and collaborative while also competing for resources, positions, recognition, and validation.

The book did get pretty technical at times however I think it is pretty intelligible by an audience either interested in science or with some prior knowledge, I plan to watch a YouTube video or two on the ribosome to make sense of some of the things which were over my head in audio form. Good book, well written, and fascinating to learn the story about the process of discovering the structure of the ribosome.

Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
By Neil Gaiman | Non-fiction / sorta biography | 2009

This will be a pretty easy write-up. Don’t Panic is, essentially, a biography of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which also happens to be a light biography of it’s creator, Douglas Adams. I found this to be a fun book as I fondly recall reading Hitchhikers a back between like 6th and 9th grades. Neil takes the reader through all the many incarnations of the story, the changes made for the different incarnations – from its start in radio to it’s eventual big-screen flop.

Neil’s writing is crisp and certainly references the style of Douglas Adams. He presents a lot of facts and stories about the in an entertaining way and, for me at least, renewed an interest in the writings. Beyond that there were a couple fun facts, I had no idea how much of a figure Adams was & the influence the guide had on people.

Overall this was a fine book IF you have read the Hitchhiker’s Guide before. If you have not, don’t read this.

January

The Four Loves
By C. S. Lewis | Non-fiction / Theology| 1960

This was a short work by C. S. Lewis which I was motivated to read after the Narnia series. Back in college I was a philosophy major and did a lot of readings on philosophical theology so this nicely scratched that itch.

The Four Loves is an attempt by Lewis to describe the four classically described types of ‘love’ in the world, how they can elevate the person/soul and how they can mislead you to jealous or other pitfalls, all from a Christian perspective. The four ‘loves’ are ‘Storge’ (pronounced ‘store’ + ‘gi’), Philia (brotherly love/friendship), Eros (erotic love), and Agape (divine love).

Without diving in to the merits or criticisms of the ideas, which I think were rather well reasoned (e.g. friendship can be one of the most selfless loves without expectation but it can also elevate the friends above others, promote a cliquishness, and lead to other negatives), I mostly wanted to focus on his articulation of the ideas. While there were clearly some things which would make this book not fly as well today due to the 1960s language, I think his ability to so briefly but directly try to describe and explore these ideas stands up today.

The most notable thing about this writing, to me, is how clearly he tries to articulate the ideas. It’s not deeply laden with terminology or biblical references. I think it’s accessible, thought provoking, and not muddled in layers of complexity which make it hard to digest. I was fond of it but it’s certainly something I would only recommend to people with certain interests (Philosphy, ethics, Lewis) or a religious audience with an interest.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
By Gabrielle Zevin | Novella | 2014

This was recommended by my sister for a family bookclub I’m in and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a short novel following the life of A. J. Fikry who is a bookstore owner who was recently widowed and in a downward spiral in life. To top that off a valuable book is stolen from his home & a child (~2 years old) dropped off in his store with no explanation. As it follows A. J.’s life we get a lot of interesting situations, fluid writing, and a very absorbing cast of characters.

While I wouldn’t put this in a ‘top’ list of mine, as I typically want a bit more range of experience/pacing in my favorites, but I will certainly be checking out future writings by Gabrielle Zevin and look forward to what I’ll find!

The Final Battle
By C.S. Lewis | Fantasy | 1956

I will say that I was taken completely off-guard by the ending of this final book. I think, while obviously strongly inspired by Christian imagery and themes, the story holds up and takes some daring steps to try to portray very conceptually challenging ideas in a way children would perhaps absorb something from them. As someone who grew up going to religious schools and things like that I am surprised I never heard more about the Narnia series apart from the original book I think the book made compelling things which teachers often made dull, abstract, or nonsensical.

Of all the books this might be my favorite simply because C. S. Lewis tries, I think very genuinely, to portray challenging topics and challenging religious themes and I think does a pretty good job at it.

As this is the last book in the series I think I’ll end with a general comment about the books. On average I found that I really enjoy Lewis’ writing style and think these works are duly popular and think the stories across all of them are are good mini-adventures which portray a magical world where you can be the hero while being real enough that there are consequences, death, misfortune, and the certainty that not everything stays the same. I look forward to reading Lewis’s more mature writings this year as I was surprised at how well these all flowed together and the topics he chose to tackle.

The Silver Chair
By C.S. Lewis | Fantasy | 1953

The silver chair felt a bit more like The Horse and His Boy in that it feels like a quest without quite the same level of ‘mystery’ or fantasy that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader provided with it. On the other hand, I did like the hook which started their journey and how it was in some ways a redemptive journey for some of the characters. Overall story I would put in the middle though some of the other case – like Puddleglum – were entertaining. Good writing throughout.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
By C.S. Lewis | Fantasy | 1952

I enjoyed this quite a lot, it mixed some good tropes – the reluctant hero, a redemption story, something akin to the labors of Heracles, etc. – with good yet terse writing. Also, unlike some of the others, it truly felt like the fantasy was ‘searching out in to the unknown’ and provided some clever, funny, and intricate scenes. Again, written for children, but still enjoyable and best-in-class for what it is.

Prince Caspian
By C.S. Lewis | Fantasy | 1951

I will say that one of the more notable parts of this series for me is how each book adds just enough to the world to make it interesting while still being brief on details. Comments much like the previous books except this feels perhaps a little more nuanced. I’m glad some of the original crew from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe returned. I also enjoyed how they are treating time across these books. I think the story was a bit stronger in this one than the past two I read.

The Horse and His Boy
By C. S. Lewis| Fantasy | 1954

This is the third book in the Narnia series which I have read. It was quite a bit different than the first one and painted a much different world where Narnia exists. Nothing too interesting, well written & clear general morality tale advocating personal responsibility the need to strive for things greater than oneself a simple painting of good vs evil and escaping from unjust oppression. Nothing too notable off-hand about it, probably would have liked the series much more if i read it at a young age.

The Magician’s Nephew
By C. S. Lewis| Fantasy | 1955

This is the second book in the Narnia series which I have read. Starkly different than the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in that it was based, ostensibly, at the founding of Narnia and showed a totally different world. The story felt short and a bit aimless apart from providing some nice background to ‘how’ Narnia came to be accessible and setting building blocks to, I hope, enrich subsequent stories.

Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete
Game Arts / Working Designs| RPG | PS1 | 1996

Lunar is a game I played as a kid – probably in 7th-8th grade – and which I remembered fondly. When one of my friends said they were going to start doing some classic game playthroughs I was quick to pressure him in to including this – if only as an excuse to replay and have someone to chat about it with.

I would say I still love the story – simple hero questing to save his love – but also notable in the way the story unfolds with great pacing, some difficult early situations, and amazing character development. I forgot how much the dialogue of all the NPCs change with every minor story progression and there were some outstanding lines, 4th wall breaking comments, and silly jokes throughout. I also find it notable in that it is one of the few games where people acknowledge your strength and role – at first people seeing you as naive but later as their only hope to survive. There’s a point at the end where a shop is even like “you’re pretty much our only hope, take whatever you need for free”. That, mixed with many other subtle moments made the game rewarding for me to replay.

Some not-so-great parts include a rather dull battle system. It starts out, I think, but within the first 30-50% of the game there’s a clear ‘these are the right moves, these are the wrong moves’ and it gets very repetitive. The equipment, while well balanced doesn’t seem to have much to it beyond ‘equip the strongest item always except that one dungeon’ which is a bit disappointing as I loved so many other parts of the game.

The voice acting was also pretty extensive – especially for a psx game of that time – and I think it was pretty well done, the characters all seemed relatively consistent and while some are not voices I personally loved for the characters they did seem to care that they were recorded well I have no real complaints no that front. The dragon voices were great imo.

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